Inner Voices – Puppets taking power. (theatre review)
Don’t Look Away and Red Line Productions
Old Fitz Theatre 15 June to 9 July You can grab your tickets here.
Images Ross Waldron
Louis Nowra, a baby boomer, wrote Inner Voices in a much simpler time. Jimmy Carter had come to power, his first act to pardon all evaders of the Vietnam War drafts. It was almost ten uears since Brezhnev invaded Czechoslovakia, he was yet to send troops into Afghanistan, The detent was firmly in place and cold war relations seemed to be relaxing. UK Prime Minister James Callaghan was yet to fight the trade unions in the Winter of Discontent and for his first year was concerned with the improvement of public education. These were halcyon days by comparison, the only fly in the ointment of this (with 20/20 hindsight) brief period of political utopia was the second year of Malcolm Fraser’s Keynesian imprint on Australian politics that would turn out to be as strong as feared by those still hurting after The Dismissal. Malcolm Fraser took a razor to the policies implemented by the Whitlam Government, the first of which to go was Ministry of the media including of course, savage cuts to the ABC. However in 1977, Fraser’s second year, he was being white anted by right wing politicians who felt he was too leftist in his approach to issues like the unions and Medicare. Young ministers like the treasurer John Howard were causing trouble behind him, intending to implement stronger free market neo-liberal economics, particularly in the face of the 1973 oil crises. Malcolm Fraser, a politician who had come by his position by dubious means and then elected was looking more and more like a foil, a charismatic puppet used by the party to get rid of the enormously popular and socialist Gough Whitlam. Inner Voices then comes at a time of destabilization in the Liberal Party in Australia in one of the very rare political years when stability seemed to be the order of the day internationally.
How interesting it is then, that Phillip Rouse, Don’t Look Away Theatre company, and Red Line Productions choose this play to bring to the fore in another politically charged year for the Australian Liberal Party. Again we see a left leaning foil, another Malcolm, taking the job of Prime Minister by dubious means. His task is to get them through the next election when it is expected he will either dance for those who hold his strings or stand aside for yet another midterm leadership change. Malcolm Fraser resigned from the Australian Liberal Party when Tony Abbot became its leader, as he cited it was now a Conservative party, not a Liberal Party. The ascent of Malcolm Turnbull gives the conservatives the liberal face it needs while they spearhead the assault on free speech – particularly the media and the arts. It is the difference in political surrounds, however, that is most different. Louis Nowra wrote his play from the comfort of white middle class left wing Australia, and could indulge in a karmic suck of the what-goes-around-comes-around sausage, but there is no such relief available for the cast, crew and companies that bring his great play to us almost forty years later. It is remarkable that the play assumes each will get their just deserts in the end. For generation X-ers and Millennial’s this is striking in its naiveté. We see no mystical force for good taking the reins here – nothing but a hard slog to fight to keep our right to speak alive, without the sympathies the previous generations took for granted. Theatre belongs to the people. By the duel forces of making the people pay for their own medical, educational and legal (funny how we all suddenly need legal representation) needs and forcing theatre into the same self reliance, we all become too busy just surviving to pay too much attention to social, creative and political matters.
One of the great joys of Inner Voices is its virulent and vibrant anger. Philip Rouse, his cast and crew inject Inner Voices with a fury that catches throughout the audience like a bushfire. Inner Voices, then becomes more than Louis Nowra’s point, it is also the anger of the theatre makers who are seeing their friends lose theatre companies to vicious funding cuts that give all the power to wealthy aesthetes. James Packer gives the worker a casino, then down the road offering a show at a theater named after his mother at a ticket price they can’t afford seems to be the order of the day. The righteous anger in Inner Voices becomes a symbol of strength and power for a small community desperately trying to remain afloat rather than Nowra’s original point that leaders are often puppets controlled by other forces. In this day and age it doesn’t matter who holds the strings. The outcome looks horribly the same.
Anna Gardiner’s set is a vibrant evocative symbol of the attitude we have to politics today, while Katelyn Shaw’s sound design is an additional revelation that expands the walls of the theatre to the giant world of the play. Phil Rouse adds music composition to his work as director and Sian James-Holland uses lighting technique to enhance the misery transported from 18TH century Russia to Australia today. The cast are strong and tightly directed by Rouse who draws them all toward a modern vibe and away from Nowra’s idea of history repeating. The performances are dynamic and able to sweep the audience up in their enormity. It’s a wonderful experience to have theatre this vigorous in the intimate theatre setting and under Phil Rouse’s direction gives one the sense we are doing something subversive and dangerous. Given the threat the small independent or underground arts community seem to pose to the large end of town, perhaps we are.